World War II veteran dies at airport before boarding Honor Flight

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- An Honor Flight headed for Washington, D.C. from Milwaukee this past weekend had to deal with an unexpected tragedy. The flight, honoring World War II and Korean War veterans left with an empty seat. Wally Smith of Germantown made it to the airport -- but didn't make the flight.

It was to be a trip to remember for Walter Smith: a World War II veteran, Smith was headed to visit Washington, D.C. on the Honor Flight leaving Milwaukee on Saturday, June 8th. Smith's niece drove them both to Mitchell International Airport early Saturday morning, and they pulled up to the gate.

"He fell asleep essentially in the car on the way to Mitchell International. When they went to wake him up, he was non responsive," Mark Smith said.

A nurse inside the terminal ran out to help.

While the band played and other veterans boarded the Honor Flight, Wally Smith, who survived the Battle in Normandy, would not survive this battle.

It was a battle with cancer that Smith fought with as much tenacity as during his service, in which he was awarded two Purple Hearts.

"He had been fighting for awhile to be able to make the Honor Flight. It was his goal. We kind of encouraged him in his physical therapy he was doing, 'yes you want to make your flight, you want to be in the best shape you can be.' He was agreeing saying 'oh yes, I really want to go.' He was really looking forward to going on the Honor Flight," Smith said.

The Honor Flight left Milwaukee without one of its honored members. On the return flight, each veteran got his mail call -- letters from family and friends, and there was a final thank you Smith would not get the chance to read.

"Many family members, my own children as well, my wife actually teaches second grade. Her elementary school wrote 'thank you for your service'. They're very cute and I know he would have gotten a big kick out of all of that," Smith said.

Smith will be honored in a different way. On the Honor Flight leaving Milwaukee in September, there will be an American flag -- the same flag that will be draped over Smith's casket on Wednesday, June 12th.

That flag will be used in a ceremony to honor one who wasn't able to make the flight.